After roping in a new manager and an almost brand new squad to work with, FC Pune City have very high hopes from ISL 2016. The first signs though are not very helpful as Pune currently sit on the sixth spot on the table with one win and two losses.
Though these are the initial stages of a long tournament, two consecutive home losses might be worrying the head coach, Antonio Habas, who himself has been serving a touchline ban for his antics during his time with Kolkata.
Habas' teams have always had a close well-knit group who like to defend as a whole and work on counter attacks. Pune City are starting to look like an Antonio Habas side but must start picking up points to justify the progress on the pitch. The Stallions are struggling in the attacking third as the players are struggling to find the right pass in the opposition's 18-yard box to inflict damage.
In the last game against North East United, Pune were one man up for almost 40 minutes yet could not capitalize on any of the opportunities to take the game away from the table toppers. In fact, the Highlanders had more shots on goal and more clear cut chances than the hosts despite being a man down. It was a very disappointing day for Pune as the team did not show up in what was a very crucial game to make a statement early in the tournament.
One of Pune's positives on the night was the performance of the 30-year-old Indian international Francis Fernandes who made his first start of this season having played a cameo in Pune's first game against Mumbai City. The new signing was with Delhi Dynamos for the first two seasons while also playing for I-League clubs like Dempo, Salgaocar and Vasco.
Born in Bogmalo, Goa, Fernandes emerged from the Vasco academy and played in two full seasons with the first team squad before leaving for Salgaocar. He was with the Goan giants for eight years before switching to play in the ISL for Delhi Dynamos.
He also played for Dempo on loan while making 29 appearances for the Indian national team on the way. Predominantly a winger, Fernandes can also play on the other flank and also as a number 10.
Fernandes' versatility will take him places for Pune City
The 30-year-old played as a left winger in Pune's first game of the season and brought much-needed pace into the game which the Stallions lacked in the first half. He replaced Arata Izumi with a like for like substitution and it almost paid dividends as Fernandes created many opportunities for Pune to grab a point against their rivals.
Both the second half arrivals of Fernandes and Spanish midfielder, Pitu made Pune dangerous which could have brought home a point for the Hrithik Roshan co-owned side.
Against North East, Pune played in a 3-5-2 formation with Fernandes playing as right full-back in the first half and as a right winger in the second. His immense work rate was on show on Wednesday night as he provided impetus in attacks and in defense for the home side.
The Stallions' crossing has been terrible this season but Fernandes’ deliveries were brilliant against the Highlanders as he delivered three crosses into the penalty box in the first half itself.
His versatility of playing in a number of positions is slowly making him Pune's go to guy and his performance against North East will make a case for his return to the Indian national team.
Fernandes’ less talked defensive contribution
Playing as a full back, Fernandes had to track back continuously to keep in check North East's attacks from the right. He showed exemplary discipline in his defensive work as Pune received not much threat from the right flank. On a number of occasions, Fernandes shielded the ball well and also made some well-timed crunching tackles.
Fernandes played as a winger all his career but has always shown that he can play in any position and never shies away from making a tackle or doing all the dirty work. His efforts against North East United earned him the ISL Emerging Player of the Match award as he stood his ground well against North East's attacking threat from Katsumi Yusa and Nico Velez and also contributed well offensively.
Reflecting on his team's second home loss on the trot, Fernandes said, "We were unlucky on a couple of occasions but we didn’t capitalize on the chances we had. Even though they were 10 men we could not create any opening and they were playing on the counter and got the goal." He also talked about Pune's resolution about winning the next two home games to get their campaign back on track.
"Yes definitely. We have to get the six points somehow. The two games we lost are in the past now. We have to concentrate on the next two games and give our best in all the games," Fernandes said.
After his unveiling as an FC Pune City player, Fernandes had said, "I can't say if I will return to the national team soon or not, but I will work hard for my new club. The ISL is one trophy that is missing from my collection, so we must win it anyhow this season."
Fernandes has already won the I-League with Salgaocar in 2010-11 and also the Federations Cup in 2011.
The 30-year old could not get many chances during his time with Delhi but looking at his current form, Antonio Habas is likely to give him more playing time as the talented midfielder can adjust in any system that the Spaniard will adopt. His stint with Pune can be a stepping stone for his return to the Indian national team.